AUBERVILLIERS – I continue to be surprised by all of the cool cultural institutions, workshops and artistic spaces that I am discovering in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris, where TAC Teatro has been performing its latest show this season. A couple of days ago, TAC – well, Ornella and I – visited the Villa Mais d’Ici arts community to meet Les Grandes Personnes. “The Big People,” who were in rehearsal, are a troupe of really big puppets and puppet makers that was founded in 1998 and is one of the many artistic residents of the Villa Mais d’Ici.
Where to start?!?! I think the photos and short videos I took will tell the story best on this one. But I do want to say that I felt for a moment as if I was in Budapest at the Szimpla Kert, and yet here, at the Villa Mais d’Ici, founded in 2003, there was a much, much bigger range of artistic endeavors. From the puppets to an office of architects to theater performers to a guitar luthier, it seemed that anything goes at the Villa Mais d’Ici. (Which, by the way, is clearly a play on words for the Villa Medicis.)
As I looked into the eyes of several of these fabulous puppet figures – which have now not only toured the world but also spawned imitators around the world – I felt like I was looking in the eyes of my own ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! But where I feel safe arguing with Peter, no way I would get in a fight with one of these behemoths!
Ornella and I were wonderfully received by the director Pauline de Coulhac, who is also an actress who works with masks, and who over lunch told us about how the concept has grown over the years, “When we started out,” she said, “we were considered nothing but carnival performers. I am proud of that, but it is interesting that it all grew into us now being seen as street artists. And we are!”
I learned that my feeling of looking in the face and eyes of my own Peter McCabe was not based on nothing: These heads are also made from papier maché. The mechanisms that provide their underlying structure, however, are made by Maurizio Moretti, a mechanical engineer (static equipment and package engineer), who suddenly got bit by the bug of building puppets!
Ornella Bonventre of TAC Teatro with one of the Grandes Personnes.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
I took a brief side trip into the atelier of the luthier, Adrien Collet, who it turns out shares dozens of friends with me on Facebook, and since I lost my last luthier who moved to the south of France, I will now know where to go to fix my almost chronically ill Seagull S6.
Les Grandes Personnes
But it will also be an excuse to return to see the Grandes Personnes and explore the rest of this artistic community!
AUBERVILLIERS, France – When Ornella Bonventre and the actors of her TAC Teatro company began the creation of their new show in the fall of 2019, they had no idea what disasters – both human-made and natural – were about to befall the world. And yet, as if predicting the future, themes of the coming cataclysms began immediately to define the show: A look at the lives of refugees, a question about what happens when your life changes forever in one sudden fell-swoop, and even, the arrival in February of the costumes of the “dream constructors” of the show in the form of doctors’ white blouses. And with the white blouses, surgical masks. Everyone joked about what they might be able to do with surgical masks. Within months, of course, and then within years, we have been hit hard in our world by many of the themes of the show.
After putting on several performances of the show last fall, TAC Teatro took a break from performance after one of the actors left, and the show has now returned with a new actor – Oscar Paille – and several new and changed and developed moments of pure delight. Every time I see this show – and I have now seen it at least 10 times live – I feel like I am watching a play of Shakespearian dimensions. Not the tragedies, more something like “The Tempest” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And fabulously, while Shakespeare is all about the text, “Ajamola” is all about the actions…and yet the text that there is excels in many spots with a beauty that touches me every time, especially that soliloquy that begins: “Goutte qui tombe sur le rebord de la fenêtre, pourrait-tu faire moins de bruit; il y a ici des gens qui ont besoin de dormir. Pas nous…” (Translation: “Drop that falls on the windowsill, could you make less noise; there are people here who need to sleep. Not us….”)
I must confess, of course, that I was involved in the beginning as both an actor and a writer of some small part of the text – not that above quoted line that comes from Ornella – but the play was ultimately a work containing contributions by all of the actors. And that is what it remains. A physical theatre show written through what the French call “écriture de plateau,” along with a very hefty and healthy job of direction by Ornella. (I dropped out of any involvement long ago, but I have attended all the performances.)
I am writing this blog item now simply to announce that the piece is back on stage, and set to run every Thursday night between now and the end of June – French school holidays excepted – at 9PM. And you should reserve in advance before going.
I am also writing this because I wanted to post some of the photos I took at the performance last week, as well as the teaser that I made for the show. Hope to see lots of readers of this blog present! It’s an experience not to be forgotten!
PS: Only now in finishing this post do I see that my last post was also about “Ajamola!” SHAME on me. I hope soon to be bringing more news, diversity in posts, and updating my open mic guides! For a full description of “Ajamola” read the bottom of the previous post!!!
PARIS – I’ve spoken a little about how musicians have survived and challenged the coronavirus pandemic over the last couple of years, but I have barely touched on theater. And theater has arguably been worse affected, as it tends to rely on fewer ways of reaching its public than music. (You can’t call a video of a theater show a theater show – even if you are one of the Cohen brothers directing Shakespeare!) But one of the reasons I have been so quiet on this blog in recent months is because I have been devoting a vast amount of time – and loving it – to three separate theater projects all produced by TAC Teatro over the final months of 2021. And I want here to share the information and the short versions of the videos I did of each of these shows, as I think they show the resistance that theater can develop – should I call it the “antibodies?” – to a pandemic that has otherwise eviscerated much of its usually fertile grounds.
I have written about TAC Teatro several times in the past, since I have been involved with Ornella Bonventre in one way or another in her theater company since 2017 when it was based in Milan, and then through its move to France the following year. But for me the biggest achievement of the company that I have seen so far has come in recent months with the three projects for which I have made these films. (And I should actually include here the period the members of the company spent doing research in Sicily last summer, but I won’t get into that here, since there is little recorded in video of that period. And also because the work they did subsequently benefitted by the research they did there, as I will mention later.)
Three written shows on three different themes for three different purposes: “Just a Sunday Brunch,” “Respire” and “Ajamola.” But all of them were put together and performed in Aubervilliers, at a theater space that TAC Teatro managed to recuperate in the middle of the pandemic and to save the creation, especially, of the biggest, most ambitious of the pieces above: “Ajamola.” I wrote about “Ajamola” two years ago when we first began creating it, just before the pandemic began, and before it had its current name. And it is the piece that has the most merit as being a monumental creation that made it through the endless battles that the pandemic threw in the company’s way over the last two years.
But I’m fluttering on. Let me get to the point!! I’ll do it in order of appearance though.
Translated as European Heritage Days and created by the French ministry of culture in 1984, the Journée du Patrimoine, in the third weekend of September was a huge success for TAC’s show, which the actors put together in only a few days and as a true announcement of the company’s arrival in Aubervilliers. Meant to highlight and show off the history of places and their artistic heritage, the day was a collaboration amongst many of the different artists of the space where TAC has been working in Aubervilliers, at 164 rue Henri Barbusse, and old warehouse-like space with musicians, sculptors and other artists, and TAC’s theater.
The TAC show was done with a set that was conceived by one of the sculptors of the space, Taïne Gras. She had created the installation of a feast table for a previous event, but remade it in the theater space, where Ornella and the actors of TAC created their show around it. The resulting show is a brilliantly funny and light piece that combines some elements of visual gags that remind me of the old silent cinema, and with a mixture of TAC’s usual physical theater forms of expression.
In addition to the theater show, there was a fashion show by a local designer in the courtyard of the place, and another event done by one of the other sculptors. We were blessed, somehow, with great weather, and the weekend was a resounding success, as you can see in the short version of the video that I made of the show.
November 25 is a date well-known by many as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. And TAC has done shows pretty much every year in support of this day, in one form or another – see the one at the Pompidou Center a few years ago – so this year, with the space in Aubervilliers, it was a great opportunity to continue the tradition. What was even better this year is that for the first time in France, the company put together its contribution with the backing of a subvention by the local municipality of Aubervilliers.
Over a three week period, the company worked with the local community to develop workshops, shows and a documentary film – which I made, and the short version, or trailer, of which I will paste in here – with the purpose of approaching the problem of violence against women in an indirect, let’s say, “non preachy” way.
Ornella went to the local schools, youth organizations and other public and private groups to get the word out and find actors to take part in the workshops and the final shows. It was no easy matter, given the limited time between having the project approved and the official deadline for completing it, which was the end of the year. Her goal was to complete all workshops, performances and the video by the end of the first week in December, and she succeeded.
The approach was to create a show that gets across the message of the horror of, and prevention of, violence against women. The main prop that they used, as you will see, is the umbrella, which is a statement of an item that protects, but at the same time isolates, and can be used as a weapon. In the video you will not only see actors from TAC Teatro, but members of the general public with no acting experience, including children, who took part in the workshops and created the show with the actors of TAC, under Ornella’s direction.
The show was performed both inside the theater space and in the streets of Aubervilliers, as a flash mob event, notably in front of the City Hall and in front of three local schools, where we got some great participation – and feedback – from the students.
But the crowning achievement of the TAC company really came in the half dozen performances of the show the company had been working on since the fall of 2019. “Ajamola” not only managed to survive, but to thrive through the pandemic, and to take on themes that were inherent to the pandemic, although strangely, some of those themes were part of the show from the beginning before the pandemic even hit! (I refer, for instance, to the so-called “dream constructors” who wear doctors’ white smocks! And how I remember everyone’s surprise and confusion when they first received their smock in Jan/Feb 2020 as to what should be done with the surgical mask that came with each costume! We threw them all away!)
I will not go through the whole show here, but for a nutshell description, check out the description of the show at the end of this blog post and as translated from the French. The play is inspired also by many of Ornella’s connections with her birthplace of Sicily, including the fisherman’s song that gives the play its title, and some other songs and musical bits in the production – which themes the actors imbued themselves with on that aforementioned visit to Sicily last summer.
In any case, the show had capacity, or near capacity, attendance each time, and as I recorded it through several cameras and a sound device simultaneously during each performance, I not only never grew bored or used to it, but I felt more and more understanding, enthusiasm and respect each time for the work of Ornella Bonventre as director, and the actors Sara Baudry, Julie Lossec, Tato Moya, Constance Dolleans and Marine Lefèvre.
And I cannot wait until the show returns, with a slight change in lineup, in the months to come. Keep posted!
By the way, I almost forgot to mention that I was actually an actor and part creator of the show two years ago, but as I became more occupied with other projects – mainly the Formula One book for Assouline – I pulled out. But I have contributed where and when possible, including at the moment I not only made the short trailer you find here, but I am working on a full-length film version of the show, which I filmed at every one of the presentations they have so far done of it.
Ornella Bonventre, Peter McCabe and Brad Spurgeon
In fact, on that same theme, I must not forget the activity of the company in Asnières-sur-Seine, where Ornella continues to teach lessons to a growing number of actors of every age in her acting school part of the company. Since the pandemic had killed any possibility of the three age groups – children, teenagers and adults – from putting on their season finale shows last June, Ornella decided to work with the students to put on the season final afternoon of three performances at the Petit Theatre in Asnières in November. And she invited me to present the festivities with my ventriloquial figure, Peter McCabe! It was our debut effort as presenters, and I found myself having to write and memorize our script very quickly…with the result, I am told, of my efforts to bring emotions of laughter to the spectators to actually succeeding in bringing strong emotions of sympathy for Peter McCabe, and equally strong emotions of disdain for me, his nasty master! What counted were the strong emotions! I regret also that the audience was apparently so involved in Peter’s performance that not a single spectator thought to take a photograph or video of our performance! So there is nothing to show for it here…. Maybe next time!
The station of a small village somewhere in the south. The court of a king. Two parallel events that intertwine: that of Alma, Nina, Vera, and Jules waiting for the train and that of the Marquis of the Moon condemned to tell stories to a mad king.
And above all: The dream builders are watching.
At the station.
People from different parts of the world, forced to leave their homeland, meet at the station of a small abandoned village while waiting for the train. An important train that will take them to where they have wanted to go for a long time, where they hope to finally find freedom. Will it arrive?
During this long wait, friendships are born, the plots of their relationships are woven and the individual stories of each come to life: the fears, joys and emotions of those who have challenged themselves, and so many dangers to freedom.
In the King’s Court.
In the power room of the palace of a mad king, the Marquis of the Moon, condemned to tell him new stories, decides to tell him that of the dream builders. This is how the dream builders come to life. They set to work in their laboratory, interacting with the lives of the protagonists who, unaware of everything, are waiting for the train at the station.
What happens when life changes suddenly and forever?
What is the force that makes us dream?
Stories of tenderness and bravery are told through songs, dances, objects that come to life and bring back distant people and memories.
PARIS – Not long into reading Jim Haynes’s autobiography, “Thanks For Coming!” in 1984, shortly after it was published, I said to myself, “I am certain I will meet this man.” I lived in Paris, as did he, I was interested in the expat literary and cultural world, and he was at the center of it, and my bookstore of choice was “The Village Voice,” on the rue Princesse, which it seemed impossible that he would not know. A meeting had to happen.
As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.
Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.
I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.
Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.
Jim Haynes Autobiography
Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.
I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)
One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.
On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!
That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.
That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)
From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.
In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.
One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.
One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.
Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”
FINALE DI POLLINA, Sicily – The Hobo clown character goes back generations in the circus arts, with the most famous one being that of Emmett Kelly, whose hobo “Weary Willie” was a reflection of the tramps of the 1930s depression. We are now on the edge of an economic period that is being classified as potentially worse than that depression, but for circus performers and most other live entertainment artists, the period of Coronavirus has been even beyond the imaginings of the depression period. So it was that the show we saw last night in this extraordinary resort town on the north coast of Sicily was, as Ornella pointed out to the artist himself after the show, an extraordinary metaphor for our time.
The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!
Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe. Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole
I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.
But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.
Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.
Pollina and its built-in theater
Our only regret was that we did not get to see a show in the other theater of the festival, which is located up in the town above where the hobo show took place in a theater the likes of which I have never seen before as it is a kind of amphitheater built right into the city-scape of the town (if such a phrase is possible!). Pollina is an ancient town built on a hill (a little like Mont Saint Michel in France) that is a major tourist attraction in Sicily; but it was too dark for us to see it from the beach area where we saw the show.
It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…
Emma Dante, left, and Ornella Bonventre at the panel discussion
CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – A discussion about the vicissitudes of modern theater and the theater as a social action, taking place under the scorching sun of Sicily amongst the trees and vegetation of the small Fraginesi artists’ retreat outside this town was the moment I had in mind when I earlier spoke of the TrinArt association while writing about the turtle event last week. The panel took place on Wednesday, and opened my eyes to yet another cultural aspect of life in Sicily.
Some of the spectators in the round at the panel
I attended because Ornella Bonventre, representing TAC Teatro, was invited to speak on the panel, as she fit in perfectly as a director and actress who comes from Castellammare del Golfo originally – actually, she was born in nearby Erice – and now also has copious experience of theater also in Milan, Paris and elsewhere. The panel also featured the illustrious Emma Dante, who is based in nearby Palermo, but is also internationally known, having worked regularly in places as far apart as Paris, Edinburgh, the United States – where her play “The Sisters Macaluso,” was staged in 2017 – and many other places. Also on the panel were Laura Castelli, an actress from Milan, a couple of actresses from the Palermo-based company, Barba à Papa Teatro, and Maria Tesè, the deputy in charge of culture for the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.
The event was attended by a healthy sized audience of perhaps 25 people – given the relatively remote location of the retreat – and among those in attendance was Nicola Rizzo, the mayor of Castellammare del Golfo.
Video: Ornella Bonventre talking about theater and society at the panel session in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily
How fabulous to find such cultural energy amongst the rugged, parched landscape, and to contrast it in the mind with the works these people normally do in theater spaces. TrinArt is an artistic association founded by Simona Nasta, a Sicilian artist, but which is not only about art but also about taking in and harbouring refugees and other people with social problems at the retreat.
Opening words of Ornella Bonventre’s article on Rodari
Perhaps that is where the social theme of the theater came into it. In any case, given the crisis that theater has been going through since the beginning of coronavirus, it was also not surprising that a lot of the discussion revolved around the problems that theater is facing today due to the virus. But there were also discussions about the general health of the modern theater itself, and what attracts people – or not – to the theater today. Ornella gave an inspiring talk about how theater is and always has been a social tool, a tool for social transformation. I won’t go into the details of what she said, because I told her I thought she had the basis for her next article for publication. (Ornella’s latest article appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Italian education industry magazine called Pedagogika, and it is a wonderful piece about the popular writer and educator, Gianni Rodari, in a special issue of the magazine celebrating the centenary of his birth.)
In any case, it was a great pleasure to attend in this panel discussion, and I look forward to reporting about further such cultural activities from this summer in Sicily….
Despite the lockdown, despite the Paris transport strike, despite the gilets jaunes, despite the mice we had at home for a while, and finally, despite the two-month-long illness that I had in January and February that was apparently NOT coronavirus, everything worked out fine in the extraordinary year of work that we all had at TAC Teatro, of which Ornella Bonventre is the director, and I and six others are actors. It culminated with a high moment at the beginning of June when we began to make a fabulous video of our show that we are hoping to complete soon.
Although Ornella created TAC Teatro several years ago and it had some success based in Milan, when she moved to in Paris in 2017, it was impossible for her to not transform the project into both an Italy- and France-based company. But there was much work and preparation involved in rebuilding the company in her newly adopted location. After spending her first year in France shuttling back and forth regularly to Italy to operate TAC there while living in France and laying the foundation for the company in its second country, she finally settled down to working full-time building the company with new actors in France.
Marine Lefèvre and the old woman
That began last fall in what proved to be difficult timing: starting with the gilets jaunes occupying the streets every Saturday (which did not really directly affect the project) and then the metro strike came in November and lasted for around two months – the longest ever such strike – and made the challenge of creating the company all the more difficult, as the actors had to come for their training, creation and rehearsal sessions three times per week by foot, car, bike or any other manner possible aside from metro from all around Paris.
We thought that would be the worst of it, when along came the Coronavirus and its lockdown. Still, the metro strike gave us all the fighting spirit and a sense of imagination so we were able to continue creating the show and training during the lockdown through three-times-per-week online video conferences.
When I say creating the show, here’s what I mean: Since last fall and the beginning of this new phase of TAC Teatro, the actors of the company used the method that Ornella specializes in for creating theater shows: The French call it écriture de plateau, and it entails the actors all together, along with the director, writing the show through body actions, personal texts, music, improvisation and an original idea that Ornella presented to us in the form of a story that was intended to fire up our imaginations and get our creative juices going.
Poster for Première Etape in October
We performed a first “work-in-progress” show of the piece in the small theater at the Theatre Armande Béjart in Asnières-sur-Seine in October, which we called, “Première Etape,” or first step, and it was well attended by the public. We were about to do the second stage of that in February, after we spent a week the whole company together working in residence in Italy in Emilia Romagna. But, yes, the day we were supposed to put on this second show for the public, France declared that anyone who had been in Emilia Romagna in the previous 14 days had to go into quarantine, as it was the epicentre of the then “young” coronavirus in Europe. So we had to cancel the show. Fortunately, however, none of us got sick of the virus.
Then came the Paris lockdown a couple of weeks later. We continued working online, but we had to cancel the premiere of what was going to be the completed show, which we had scheduled to perform in Asnières in late May.
Still, the story had a happy ending when in early June the mayor’s office of Asnières donated to us the big stage of the Armande Béjart Theatre, as well as the city’s technical crew, to film the piece. It was a gesture to help out the creative sector, so badly hit by Covid.
Now I want to talk very briefly about the extraordinary synchronicity in the creation of this show, which for the moment we are calling “Terminus,” but which might change its name before it is staged. There was an amazing foreshadowing of subsequent world events reflected in this creation that we did not do on purpose, but that somehow came about of its own accord. In brief, the piece is about a group of immigrants who come from various parts of the world to a land where they hope to make a new life. They are, in fact, badly treated by the locals, and even duped by the military, and their world begins to fall apart; just as had their own countries before their emigration.
During creation in Italy as the Constructeurs de Reves
Working behind them, invisible and unknown to them, however, are the “constructeurs de rêves,” or the dream creators, who try to help them. The dream creators are dressed in white doctors’ coats and work in another layer of reality to try to change the course of human actions.
When the coronavirus came along, the show took on another sense to us, as we could not believe the way our futures – the future of the whole world – had fallen into the hands of doctors in white coats, and for everyone on earth almost without exception, their world had fallen apart.
Janice Zadrozynski in character for the TAC show
I have often found while writing creatively that such strange synchronicities with real life do indeed happen. And now that we have almost completed the show, we hope that the constructors of dreams will allow the world to get back to some state of normalcy in the coming year so that we can finally perform it in public. I will keep you posted on this blog as to what happens.
The company consists of Ornella directing and the following actors acting, performing, playing music, and writing the show all of us together: Julie Lossec, Janice Zadrozynski, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, Marine Lefèvre and Sara Baudry. You can find all of our bios through the TAC Teatro “About us” menu.
And, by the way, I have only spoken about our new show here, but we also performed in public this last winter doing a street action to commemorate the day against violence to women, for which we also created quite a complex flash mob performance, and we ran an online open stage for all kinds of performances throughout most of the lockdown . So it was, in the end, a productive season for TAC Teatro, despite all the elements and human nature itself seemingly fighting against us.
PARIS – It took me decades, but I have finally attended a Peter Brook night at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. On Friday, I went to the last day of a three-day run of a work-in-progress by Brook and a handful of actors, at the theater that he has occupied since 1974, although he ceased running the place in 2008. Brook will turn 95 next month, so perhaps it was significant that the work-in-question was “The Tempest,” considered one of Shakespeare’slast plays, and one that is full of commentary on the very art of drama itself that both Shakespeare and Brook devoted themselves to. And what a pleasure and spellbinding moment it was to see and hear Brook himself.
The Bouffes du Nord was opened as a theater in the 1870s, and had a long history of trying to find its raison d’être, until Peter Brook took over the place and made it the seat of his International Centre for Theatre Research, which he founded in 1970, along with Micheline Rozan. Just sitting in and exploring the theater itself is a great experience – I had been only once before, for a Rickie Lee Jones concert – as it was refurbished by Brook years ago, but not redecorated. So the walls, seats, stage area, everything has a feeling of being lost and left in time to rot. (You can get a small taste of it from an opera scene in the 1980s film “Diva.”)
The show was called “Shakespeare Resonance,” and consisted of a demonstration by a handful of actors of “research” that they had done on “The Tempest” over the last couple of weeks, under the impetus of Brook and his collaborating director, Marie-Hélène Estienne. Ultimately, it was about 1 hour and 10 or 20 minutes of excerpts of The Tempest woven together to make a play. I’ll get into that part of the evening in a moment, but for me the thrilling part of the evening was to see and hear Brook talk about the work before the show.
He came to the stage along with all the actors before the demonstration of work, and he was seated in a chair, with his actors at his side, and he took a microphone and spoke to the audience about his vision of the theater, and this work itself. Notably, he spoke of the resonances between the actors on stage and the public watching a show. And he immediately asked one of the actors – Marcello Magni – to involve the audience in one of the exercises that Brook caught him doing backstage to warm up the other actors. It was about finding those resonances with our hands and whole body.
Ornella and I arrived about 20 minutes before the show was set to begin at 19:00 and already by then we had a highly reduced choice of seats to sit in, having to settle for the first floor balcony. It turned out to be a great place to sit as we had a full view of the stage area, but most importantly, our seats were very close to the loudspeaker that projected Brook’s somewhat weakened voice through the mic.
Other than that, Brook was wonderfully in possession of all of his intellectual brilliance and passion for the theater, clearly. So it was the treat of a lifetime to have finally gone and witnessed this moment of a colossus of world theater.
As to his – and Estienne’s – directing what was most extraordinary was the choice of the actors and the reasons behind that choice; and, of course, the stage actions were captivating throughout – especially the use of some basic props, such as the filthy, heavy-looking carpet that Caliban rolled himself up in.
Magni, who comes from Bergamo, in Italy, but has lived and worked in Britain for 40 years, played Ariel, and was clearly the doyen of the actors. I never pictured Ariel as a grey-haired man of something like my age! But, of course, it worked well, as Magni brought the character to life and the poetry did its work. The other actors included Hiran Abeysekera, playing both Caliban and Ferdinand, Maïa Jemmett, playing Miranda, and Ery Nzaramba as Prospero, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan of India.
What was really wonderful to behold was the huge disparity of origins of the actors. Prospero, or Nzaramba, is of black-African origin, although he has grown up in British theater, training in Birmingham, and having worked with Brook before. The delightful Abeysekara is from Sri Lanka, and after winning praises in his own country went to Britain and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has worked extensively in British theater.
His were among the most fun performances to watch, especially when he rapidly climbed up a supporting pillar – or pipe – that runs up the side of the base of the proscenium arch, giving a different level to the stage area. We saw him briefly after the show and Ornella asked if that moment had been planned from the beginning or something that was incorporated into the piece through improvisation. He said that he had climbed up the pole once outside the creation and Estienne asked him to do it as part of the show.
But this very aspect of a wide variety of nationalities among the actors was precisely at the center of Brook’s relationship with The Tempest. The first time he had directed it was in a Stratford production, and he was disappointed with it. The problem for him, was that he found that working with actors of the western temperament and background was limiting for a play in which there is a magic, spiritual, ritual side.
So in his next production, in Paris in 1968, he used actors from around the world.
“I found it interesting to take scenes from the play as a base and to see how we could rediscover it together,” he writes in French in a simple program for the show last week, that I translate here. “The result went beyond our expectations.”
“In Shakespeare’s era, in the Elizabethan world, the links with the natural world had not yet been broken, ad ancient beliefs were still present and the sense of marvels was very much alive,” he says. “Western actors have all that is needed to explore in the works of Shakespeare that which concerns anger, power, sexuality and introspection. But when it comes to touching the world of the invisible, things become difficult and everything gets blocked up. In so-called “traditional” cultures the images of the gods, of witchcraft, are natural.”
This is clearly the approach he took again, and I left the evening feeling as if I HAD seen “The Tempest” with another eye.
We took a short break from the creation of our work-in-progress at TAC Teatro in order to put together and perform a commemoration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Originally intending to put on the flash mob and short performance in Asnières-sur-Seine, where the company rehearses, we had a last minute change of plan and did it all in Paris. So it was that putting on this performance we called “Les Chaussettes Rouges” (The Red Socks) was pure delight.
In the middle of a few weeks of desperately cold, rainy, horrible weather, our target date of 24 November, the day before the official date of the United Nations commemoration, we ended up with sun all over town. It could not have been a more beautiful day, and so it allowed us to use several different locations for the flash mob, and another location for the performance, as we spread the names of women victims of violence across the city where the day before there had been a demonstration of 45,000 people in support of the same cause.
As you can see in the above video that we made of the day, we started by rehearsing what we planned in a small, quiet backstreet of the Place de Clichy. Then we put on the first flash mob at the beginning of the Boulevard de Clichy. After that, we walked to the Place des Abbesses, in Montmartre, where we did the second flash mob.
We performed a third flash mob at Stalingrad, in the big place by the canal, and we did the performance in the park of Belleville in a kind of modern take on an ancient amphitheater. Present were all of the actors of TAC Teatro and a couple of the students from TAC’s acting school.
It was quite an emotional, but also liberating, day, as we moved through the city as a group and performed for a surprised public, looking and pointing to the sky for the victims of domestic violence. The flash mob and performance was something we all wove together in a few days preceding the event – with lots of thought having gone into it in the month before, week to week, as we continued to prepare our show.
It was, as Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro said, the preparation for the event that was as much an act of contributing towards this cause as was the actual performance.
We had a fabulous two weeks at TAC Teatro working daily on our next show, and then crowning the work period with a demonstration of the creative process to spectators at the Petit Théâtre in Asnières-sur-Seine. There we interspersed our personal work on the next show with explanations of how we went through the creative process to come up with the scores. The whole was led, of course, by Ornella Bonventre, the director of TAC Teatro, who was also the one behind leading us towards our individual creations.
It’s a process of work that I began wondering if I would ever come out of it with anything at all. But on the very first day, with the instructions Ornella gave us, I began to create my character and his place in the show. Can there be any surprise that the character comes from a circus background and so did some juggling, tight-rope walking and…reading of the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”?
Brad Spurgeon at TAC Teatro work demonstration
If you don’t understand a word of what I just explained there, well, you will have to come to the show when it is finished later next year. The other members of the company to perform in the work demonstration – who worked in the same manner as I just explained, but who came up with many different kinds of characters and scores – were Sara Baudry, Ioana Jarda, Marine Lefèvre, Julie Lossec, Marina Meinero, Pacôme Puech, and Janice Zadrozynski.
Marina was the only one not physically present, as she had a commitment in Italy. But she sent a video of her work, which I place below.
Ornella Bonventre speaking to the spectators during the TAC Teatro work demonstration
Keep posted for the next steps of the work-in-progress.